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Let me begin by associating myself with the statement of sympathy offered by the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Mitchell) to the people of China in light of the terrible earthquake that has afflicted the country. I will address the hon. Gentleman’s points in the course of my remarks, but let me start by updating the House on the latest assessment of the situation in the affected areas of Burma. Then I will share with the House the efforts we are making to provide humanitarian relief, before detailing our political and diplomatic efforts to secure further access for aid and, indeed, for humanitarian workers.

As the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield described, the situation in the disaster zone of the Irrawaddy delta is rapidly deteriorating—largely, and tragically, because of the inadequacy of the Burmese regime’s response. People are dying now not because of a natural disaster, but because a disaster has been turned into a man-made catastrophe. The state media in Burma are reporting that some 28,500 people have died, 1,400 are injured and more than 33,000 are missing. However, we believe the true figures to be far greater.

I spoke only this morning to Rurik Marsden, the head of the Rangoon office of the Department for International Development, and some agencies in the field are now estimating that the number of dead and missing is rising to more than 200,000 people. At least 1.5 million people are in need of assistance, and for 300,000 of those the need is desperately urgent.

The likelihood of widespread infectious disease as a consequence is increasing fast. The initial risks are diarrhoea and water-borne disease. One aid agency to which we have spoken reports that one fifth of the children it has reached already have diarrhoea. In time, there will be an increased risk of the spread of malaria due to the large amounts of standing water following the cyclone.

There have been some signs in recent days that the amount of aid reaching Burma is increasing. As of Monday, just 35 flights had arrived in the course of the preceding week. In contrast, two US military flights arrived in Rangoon this morning, along with eight aid flights, and we expect a total of 23 flights to arrive in the course of today. One of the eight aid flights to arrive this morning was carrying UK assistance—36 tonnes of plastic sheeting, which is enough to provide shelter for many thousands of people. That shipment was consigned directly to the UN World Food Programme—not, of course, to the Government of Burma—and distribution within Burma will now be taken forward.

Four further UK aid flights are expected to fly out this week, with shelter and blankets as well as flat-bottomed boats to help those most in need. We will also supply experts, both in Bangkok and in Rangoon, to ensure the smooth running of relief flights into Rangoon, and I have also requested the Ministry of
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Defence to direct HMS Westminster to the region to assist in any appropriate humanitarian response. That request has been approved, and HMS Westminster is now on its way to international waters off the coast of Burma.

Jeremy Wright (Rugby and Kenilworth) (Con): The Secretary of State will recognise that much of what he is describing is precisely reflected in the motion tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron). Given that the right hon. Gentleman has moved an amendment to the motion, from which we can take it that the Government will be voting against the Opposition motion, will he explain in the course of his remarks precisely what it is in our motion that he disagrees with?

Mr. Alexander: As I made clear earlier before I embarked on my substantive speech, there is some confusion about the Conservative position. The Conservative party leader declared that there was a deadline at the close of play yesterday, whereas that deadline is not set out in the Conservative motion; indeed, its existence appears to have been contradicted by the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield. In such circumstances, I do not think it unreasonable for the Government to table an amendment, which I hope will secure the support of all hon. Members.

Mr. Evans: I too am a little confused about what it is in the motion tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) and supported by Conservative Members that the Government disagree with—other than the fact that our motion

whereas the Government’s amendment replaces that with praise for

Mr. Alexander: The confusion is among Front-Bench Conservative Members. Only this afternoon, the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield singularly failed to back his own leader’s call for setting a deadline, ending yesterday, for the Burmese regime. Perhaps Conservative Front Benchers will clarify that in the concluding speeches. The responsibility for the confusion rests entirely with them.

Mr. Andrew Mitchell: The Secretary of State offers the House a most unusual— [Interruption.] As my hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) says, the right hon. Gentleman’s explanation is pathetic. What the motion says is very clear. It does not deal with the issues that the Secretary of State has raised. As my hon. Friends the Members for Rugby and Kenilworth (Jeremy Wright) and for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) both made clear from the Back Benches, the motion we tabled is perfectly reasonable, so will the Secretary of State identify which aspects of its wording he disagrees with in order to explain why he is whipping his party to vote against it this afternoon?

Mr. Alexander: I have been clear that the confusion rests with Conservative Members; they failed to back up their own leader who in the course of an interview
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yesterday—as confirmed by the Conservative Front Benchers—talked about yesterday as a deadline. That position appears to have been resiled from by Conservative Front-Bench Members today. If that is a matter of dispute within their ranks, it is for them to defend and explain it.

Tony Baldry rose—

Daniel Kawczynski (Shrewsbury and Atcham) (Con) rose—

Mr. Alexander: I have been generous in giving way and I am keen to make a little progress— [Interruption.] Before abuse is hurled across the House, it may be appropriate for the Conservatives to deal with the confusion— [Interruption.] With the greatest respect— [Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. There are too many sedentary interruptions. This is an extremely important matter and many people will be watching the House today, so we really should address the central issue before us.

Mr. Alexander: I would be glad to return to the central issue as you direct, Mr. Deputy Speaker, which is the complex picture—

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Alexander: I am keen to make a little progress, but I will be happy to give way again in due course.

A complex picture is emerging in relation to access for international agencies. The hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield asked about reports emerging today of further constraints on access for international NGO workers within the delta region. I can confirm that we have received indications that that direction has been offered within Burma by the Burmese regime. Similar directions offered have been circumvented on the ground in recent days, but only time will tell whether this will result in the removal of international aid workers. I sincerely hope not.

From my discussions with British NGOs working on the ground, it is clear that a number of them have been able to secure access to the affected areas recently, and I hope that that will continue. This is obviously a worrying development and we will monitor it closely. In the course of the morning, I met British NGOs working on the ground and they offered different accounts of the level of access that they were able to secure to affected areas.

I am sure that there is consensus among Members across the House in commending the considerable efforts of UN agencies, international NGOs and British agencies to deliver aid to those in need, often in extremely difficult circumstances. The World Food Programme reports that it has dispatched 426 tonnes of food to affected areas and distributed enough food to reach nearly 74,000 people. The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies now has two water purification units in Rangoon and expects two more by the end of the week. When all four are operating at full capacity, they will provide minimum daily water rations for up to 200,000 people.

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Pete Wishart (Perth and North Perthshire) (SNP): I am still looking at the motion and the amendment. In view of the wording, can the Secretary of State offer any reasons why my hon. Friends and I should support the Government’s amendment, as opposed to the Conservative motion? I cannot see any difference.

Mr. Alexander: At the hon. Gentleman’s request I shall return to the subject of the Conservatives’ lack of clarification of their policy on responsibility to protect, given that divergent opinions have now been offered by their Front-Bench spokesman—the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield—and the leader of the Conservative party.

Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford) (Con): The right hon. Gentleman is beginning to get into the Prime Minister’s mode of failing to answer a specific question. May I make the question a little more simple? Can the right hon. Gentleman tell me which part of the Opposition motion he has a problem with, and which part he will urge his colleagues to vote against?

Mr. Alexander: The Opposition motion refers to the responsibility to protect, which reflects an enduring apparent inconsistency on the part of the Conservative party. In recent days the party leader has said that a deadline should be set for the regime—the deadline was yesterday, and it has now passed—but today, when the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman had an opportunity to suggest when such a deadline should be reached, he was unable to confirm that he adhered to a position that involves very serious consequences in relation to whether or not there should be immediate air drops.

Mike Gapes: I have read both the Opposition motion and the Government amendment. The phrase “responsibility to protect” appears in the motion, but not in the amendment. Let me try to clarify the position. Gareth Evans, the former Australian Foreign Minister, has written that dangers will be posed in the international community if we use the term “responsibility to protect” so loosely that it undermines the necessity of such action when it is sanctioned by the United Nations in the context of crimes against humanity, such as genocide. Is that the reason for the Government’s amendment?

Mr. Alexander: My hon. Friend brings his considerable experience in the Foreign Affairs Committee to bear on these discussions of international relations. I think that it would send the wrong message to the regime in Burma if we suggested the endorsement of a deadline which has already passed, and which is the subject of confusion in the Conservative party.

I am certainly happy to stand by the terms of the Government amendment, which I think offers a judicious way forward. It recognises the need for continued international pressure, pays due acknowledgement to the work that is under way, and makes clear our continued determination to secure access by all appropriate means.

Mr. Andrew Mitchell: When the hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes) quoted Mr. Gareth Evans, he should not have quoted selectively. Mr. Evans wrote in his article:

—that is, the arguments that the hon. Gentleman says Mr. Evans supports—

That is the case that Conservative Members have made.

As for the responsibility to protect, I urge the Secretary of State to return to a bipartisan approach. The issue is currently being debated. The British ambassador to the United Nations has said that he does not think the responsibility to protect is relevant, while the Foreign Secretary said in an interview last night that it should indeed be considered. Rather than making cheap political points, the right hon. Gentleman should focus on the needs of the Burmese people at the moment.

Mr. Alexander: I think the hon. Gentleman doth protest too much. It is for him to account for the disparity between the position that he set out today and what was said by his party leader on “The World at One”. These are serious issues, which is why I am keen for an approach to be adopted that is clearly set out to the regime in Burma, and why it is important not to retain the kind of inconsistency that still haunts the Conservative party. Has the deadline for responsibility to protect passed, or has it not?

Mr. Tom Clarke: I regret that the House appears to have been invited to choose between a motion and an amendment. We can make up our minds later on how that came about, but may I suggest to my right hon. Friend, who has put a specific question, that the non-governmental organisations surely have a say in the matter? The Opposition motion ends with the words “using direct aid drops”. As my right hon. Friend may be aware, Jane Cocking of Oxfam has said:

She has also referred to the huge importance of diplomatic efforts. Does that not demonstrate that my right hon. Friend is being entirely responsible?

Mr. Alexander: I recognise the significant contribution that can be made by NGOs, given both their knowledge of what is happening on the ground and their well-established understanding of the need to deliver aid in an effective way. That is why I agreed with what the Prime Minister said during Prime Minister’s Questions today. Of course we take no option off the table, and of course we continue our discussions with the Security Council. That hardly comes as a revelation: it was said by the Foreign Secretary last night, and by the Prime Minister at the Dispatch Box today. It is fundamentally different from suggesting that a deadline has already passed and that air drops should therefore follow immediately.

I think it right to make it clear that there continues to be pressure from the international community, that we continue to examine all options with our partners in the Security Council and the international community, and that in the meantime we are unstinting in our efforts to convey aid to the people who require it. That is the Government’s approach, and the approach of the amendment.

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John Battle: The Government should be commended for moving quickly and offering material aid, but as the Select Committee on International Development made plain in its report on humanitarian responses, we cannot focus solely on such aid. We must focus on getting people to Burma to ensure that aid is delivered properly. One of the problems with air drops in such circumstances is that the aid would be dropped on water rather than land, which was not the case in Ethiopia. We should concentrate on access, and the need to persuade the Burmese to admit independent experts from the United Nations and the NGOs to ensure that aid reaches people on the ground, because no one is in a position to deal with that now. That should be the focus of the efforts of Members throughout the House.

Mr. Alexander: I entirely agree, which is why I am not convinced of the case that a deadline of yesterday should have been set. We are seeing a significant increase in the number of flights. As I have said, there have been more than 30 over the last week, and 27 are due to enter Rangoon today. That is why I feel that the sensible approach is to continue the dialogue with the British NGOs—I met representatives only this morning—and to continue to make all possible representations both at the United Nations and internationally, which we are doing. At the same time, we should proceed with the work of our assessment teams on the ground.

Now is the time to take a considered approach, and to make what I accept are difficult judgments on the most effective way of securing aid on the ground. It is for others to account for their own position, but I stand by the terms of our amendment.

Tony Baldry: Will the Secretary of State give way?

Mr. Alexander: I have been generous in giving way, and I want to make a little more progress before taking further interventions.

As Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon said on Monday, it is clearly still the case that not nearly enough aid or aid workers are reaching those in need. The United Nations staff on the ground are grievously overstretched, and the Burmese Government continue to deny visas to foreign aid workers. As a result, the United Nations has been able to reach fewer than a third of the total number of people at risk, estimated by the United Nations secretariat to be some 270,000.

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